Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has won the world’s heart and broken the internet by proving he’s “not just a pretty face” (in the words of Britain’s Daily Mail) and “the man of your dreams” (in the words of Vanity Fair). Foreign reporters are drawing these conclusions based on Canadian reports that the PM launched into an impromptu soliloquy on quantum computing during a press conference yesterday, in which he dressed down a condescending reporter who apparently considered him too stupid to understand the technology.
This is how the Toronto Star reported the episode, for example (headline: “PM shows off knowledge of quantum computing”):
On the chalkboard behind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, were equations sufficient to give anyone who struggled in high school math horrors for a lifetime.
Then an inquiring reporter, covering Trudeau’s reannouncement of the recent federal budget’s $50-million allocation for Perimeter, inadvertently led with his chin.
“I was going to ask you to explain quantum computing, but . . . ,” the reporter said before asking a question about Canada’s role in defeating Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The man who has been called Canada’s new heartthrob, yoga hotshot, feminist PM — apparently eager to show he’s more than a now globally recognized pretty face — promptly showed he has computer-geek talents previously little known.
“OK, quite simply, normal computers work by . . . ,” Trudeau said to laughter and applause.
“No, no, don’t interrupt me, when you walk out of here you will know more — well no, some of you will know far less — about quantum computing,” he continued.
“A regular computer bit is either a one or a zero, either on or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that, because as we know, things can be both particle and wave at the same time and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer.”
“So that’s what’s exciting about quantum computing,” he said as the crowd erupted into sustained applause.
You can read some version of this story just about anywhere at the moment. It is extraordinarily good press for the Prime Minister, given the man has long struggled with accusations he is an intellectual lightweight. It has also helped overshadow various unpleasantries he would rather not be talking about at the moment, including his government’s assisted-suicide legislation and, as the Star story notes, Canada’s ambiguous role in the war on ISIS.
So anyway, here is what actually happened.
On Friday, Prime Minister Trudeau visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics located in Waterloo, Ontario. After a tour, he staged a brief photo op with some scientists and gave a short speech about how his government believes in funding science yada yada. Then, at one point he said this:
“You don’t have to be a geek like me to appreciate how important this work is. Although I have to tell you, when we get to the media questions later I’m really hoping people ask me how quantum computing works because I was excited to deepen my knowledge of that this morning.”
Click here to see a link to the relevant snippet of the speech on the Perimeter Institute’s YouTube channel.
Eventually we did get to the media questions. The first one went like this:
REPORTER: Morning sir, I was going to ask you to explain quantum computing but.. [trails off as audience laughs] When do you expect Canada’s ISIL mission to begin again and are we not doing anything in the interim while we prepare?
PM TRUDEAU: ‘Kay, very simply, normal computers work by….
And that was that.
So, to summarize, the PM went to a place and learned about a thing. During the speech that followed, he excitedly suggested he wanted to talk about the thing he just learned. A reporter was disinterested in playing along, and tried to ask a more relevant question, but Trudeau ignored him and launched into what was clearly a pre-prepared treatise on the thing.
In the reporting that followed, the Canadian media deliberately and pointedly did not place Trudeau’s verbal essay on quantum computing in the context in which it occurred. They instead chose to present the story in a fashion that would ensure maximum PR benefit to the prime minister — namely, this idea that Trudeau confidently called the bluff of a patronizing reporter.
To put it another way, the Canadian media has actually reversed the realities of the story 180 degrees. What is being falsely presented as a story of a scrappy prime minister resisting a hostile press is actually a story of a slavishly subservient press who are actively shaping their reporting to suit the government’s needs.
It is a disgrace.